In the Depths of Darkness
Written by Bron James
Top 20 in Vocal's Campfire Ghost Stories
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.
My brother, sister and I would often come to camp in these woods. We had our favourite clearing amongst the trees to pitch our tents, far enough from the beaten track to feel remote and removed from civilisation. It’d been our regular haunt every summer as kids, when our father used to take us up there on fishing trips.
Dad was always full of stories. When the sun had set after a day out on the lake or hiking mountain trails, he would sit us down around the campfire and tell us stories long into the night, until the fire’s embers grew dim. There were many myths and legends in these woods, he’d say. They were filled with ghosts and ghouls and monsters, the kinds of fantasies which pushed the boundaries of the believable. The forest felt so deep and dark after nightfall, it was easy to imagine all manner of mysteries lurking in its shadows. Every distant snapping of twigs or rustling of leaves, some unknown creature of ancient folklore.
It’d often keep us up at night. Sometimes for fear of what horrors might be watching from between the trees, others with the thrill and wonder of adventure.
And no mystery was more captivating than the cabin in the woods.
It was an old, derelict shack amidst a thick crop of trees, far from any path or road. Why it was so secluded, who built it, and why it had been abandoned for decades, were all secrets lost to the ages.
The wood had rotted over the years, ravaged by time and overgrown with thick layers of moss and ivy. The windows were almost opaque with dirt, a couple of the panes broken into jagged shards. It was difficult to see clearly inside, but what faint beams of light managed to break through the windows illuminated slim slithers of dusty, cobweb-ridden furniture.
We could never get into the cabin. The entrance had been barred, boarded-up with heavy planks of wood. And surrounding the doorway were these strange, twisting symbols—unlike anything we’d seen before—carved all along its frame.
Each trip, Dad would take us for a walk up to the old place, while he spun unbelievable stories about its history. Sometimes it was a hideout for smugglers during the Revolutionary War; others, an old hunting lodge, whose last known residents mysteriously vanished one night; and occasionally it was home to a witches’ coven, where the ageless crones still slept.
If we ever asked him which of these was real, he’d simply say with a sly smile that there was always a hint of truth to every legend. What was important, he’d add, was that we were to never go there alone. The spirits of the cabin would try to lure in unwary travellers, never to be seen again.
Of course, as we grew older we stopped believing in Dad’s campfire stories. In all our years visiting our hidden camping ground, we’d never seen the mermaids of the lake, nor the wendigos which stalked the hills, or the “batsquatch” which lurked atop the mountain’s tallest peaks. (I don’t know why we ever believed that last one; Bigfoot with bat wings is patently ridiculous). We outgrew the myths and legends, but we still enjoyed listening to his tales, even if they were made-up nonsense.
The only one which still sparked wonder, even into our late teens, was the mystery of that curious cabin.
Perhaps it was because—unlike his other strange stories—we had seen the cabin many times on our trips. It felt more real, more believable, having visited the place while he told us these tall tales. We’d seen the thick mists rolling through the undergrowth, and the dense and twisted trees which concealed this secluded old shack. We’d felt that uncanny chill in the air, even on a warm summer’s eve, as if the place was shrouded in an ominous aura.
We may not have believed it was home to a coven of cackling crones anymore, but there was no denying that a mysterious presence surrounded that cabin. An arcane air which captured the imagination.
When each of us started to move away to different colleges across the country, our camping trips became less and less frequent. It was hard to work around everyone’s schedules, wrapped up in our studies or work, and—if I’m being honest with myself—we were probably too focused on our own separate lives to make time for traditional family fishing trips.
It wasn’t until Dad passed that we came back to visit these secluded woods again.
He’d had us quite late in life, and was already getting on in years by the time Sadie, the youngest, had graduated. We knew the old man was, well, old, but the news still came as a shock. It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that Dad was gone, and I found myself thinking back to our camping adventures. After the funeral, Sadie, Daryl and I decided to take another trip to the lake, in honour of Dad’s memory.
The forest felt emptier somehow when we arrived at the usual clearing. It might have been the absence of Dad’s humming while we pitched our tents, but a heavy silence seemed to hang in the air. It was as if the forest itself felt our loss as strongly as we did.
Once the camp was set up, we headed out along some of Dad’s favourite hiking trails. Every now and again we would stop to rest, and enjoy the sights he'd always loved. The mountain peaks piercing up into the sky; the treetops stretching out below; the sparkling blue of the lake just beyond the treeline. If I closed my eyes, I could almost picture Dad there beside us, boring us to tears with facts about woodpeckers.
We spent a long, peaceful afternoon fishing out on the lake and, as evening began to close in, we rowed our way back to camp. Daryl prepared the fish for dinner, while Sadie and I collected wood for the fire. The dusky purple of twilight blanketed the skies by the time we gathered around the campfire, roasting our fish on the open flames and knocking back beers. We poured a little out onto the earth as we toasted the memory of our late father, and retold some of his old and absurd ghost stories as the night set in.
Before we knew it, the sky had faded into inky black, fretted with the glimmering pinpricks of distant starlight. The fire’s flames began to grow dim as we lay back, gazing at the stars above. Between our own quiet reflections and the beer swimming in our brains, it was easy to get lost in our thoughts, wondering at the infinite cosmos.
I was on the verge of drifting off to sleep right there on the ground when Sadie suddenly leapt up.
“Did you see that?” she exclaimed, craning her neck left and right as if urgently searching for something. “That… That light?”
“The hell are you talking about?” I groaned, forcibly waking myself up. I propped myself against one of the log-seats, dazedly looking around. Compared to the sky above, the woods surrounding us were shrouded in impenetrable black shadow.
“It was this kind of floating orb sort of thing,” she said, clarifying nothing.
“Ooh, an immersive ghost story?” Daryl said. He stood up and stretched. “It’s late, Sades, maybe save it for tomorrow night.”
“I’m being serious, guys,” Sadie said. She continued to look around, alert and on edge. Even if I thought she’d been making it up, her behaviour certainly told me otherwise. She’d seen something in the darkness. “It was like one of those will-o’-the-wisps Dad told us about.”
“Alright, no more scary stories before bedtime for you, little sis,” Daryl said. I could almost hear his eyes rolling behind his teasing tone. “You know those things are just swamp gasses, right?”
“And we’re nowhere near a damn swamp, are we?” Sadie bit back. “I know what I saw. It was— Look! Over there!” She thrust her arm up, frantically pointing out into the woods somewhere behind me. Slowly, I turned around to see, and could barely believe my eyes.
There it was. A floating, minty-green orb of light, hovering at the edge of our campsite. It moved about like an insect, drifting around some five feet from the ground and weaving through the trees. Its glow faintly illuminated the space around it in that strange shade of green. It was too big to be a firefly, and it certainly couldn’t be explained away as simple swamp gas. The way it moved seemed almost too intentional, too directed, as if there was some unfathomable consciousness behind its presence.
When all three of us had turned to stare at the will-o’-the-wisp, it came to an abrupt halt. It hovered in front of us, like it was waiting to make sure it had caught our attention, before zipping away deeper into the woods. After it had moved several yards from us, it stopped again and began to dance about on the spot. As if it was beckoning to us.
“I think it wants us to follow,” Daryl said. He grabbed his flashlight from his pack and shone it in the orb’s direction. The will-o’-the-wisp bobbed excitedly in the torchlight. “Let’s see where you want to go...”
I grabbed Daryl’s arm before he could take a step. “Is that really a good idea?” I asked. “Didn’t Dad say they led unwary travellers astray?”
“Then we’ll just have to stay wary, won’t we?” he replied with a grin. “Come on, don’t say you’re scared of a little floating light. Maybe it’s Dad giving us his best ghost story yet, y’know—” He tilted the flashlight to illuminate his face from below, waggling the fingers of his free hand as he adopted a spooky storyteller’s vibrato. “—from beyond!”
“Yeah,” Sadie chimed in, picking up her flashlight too. “It’s not like we’re kids anymore, we can handle ourselves. We’ll stay safe. Besides, it’ll be an adventure.”
Maybe it was the feeling of reliving our childhood here in the forest, or the several bottles of beer drowning my judgment, but I couldn’t deny the idea of an adventure called to me. I was intrigued. What was this will-o’-the-wisp, and why had it come to us? Could it really have been something conjured up by Dad’s spirit? After all, what harm could a floating ball of light really do to us… We’d visited these woods many times, and we knew the lay of the land like the backs of our hands. If we kept our wits about us, nothing could catch us off-guard.
For better or for worse, we took off into the forest, following our ethereal visitor through the darkness.
The will-o’-the-wisp led us onwards, guiding us through the trees and undergrowth. It took us up the hill, alongside one of the hiking trails, before veering back down into the depths of the forest. It glided through a dense thicket, and vanished somewhere behind the trees. We pushed through after it, moving aside the twisted and gnarled branches which blocked our path.
“No way,” Sadie breathed as we stumbled through the foliage. “That’s… Is that another light up ahead?”
No more than a few yards from us was another light. A faint orange glow, flickering in the deep black of night. Our orb friend circled around it, as if drawing our attention, before promptly disappearing into nothingness. We raised our flashlights towards the glow, and saw where the will-o’-the-wisp had led us.
The abandoned cabin in the woods.
A solitary candle burned low in its window. It cast strange reflections on the dust-coated glass, blurring the flame behind the pane, but still it shone like a beacon through the night.
“But this old place has been vacant for decades,” Daryl said as he stared, transfixed, at the cabin. “What’s anyone even doing out here?”
“Maybe you were right. Maybe Dad’s spirit is taking us on an adventure,” Sadie said. She rounded the outside of the cabin, casting her torchlight along the aged wooden building.
I wanted with all my heart to believe that she was right. That maybe Dad had found a way to reach us from beyond, to manifest as a will-o’-the-wisp and guide us on a spooky night’s stroll. But something felt off. The cabin had always had an unsettling aura surrounding it, but tonight the air felt heavy and oppressive. Something ominous and forbidding lurked in the shadows of this forsaken shack. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
As the light from Sadie’s torch reached the cabin’s door, something else was amiss. The doorway was hollow. No boards barred the entrance, just an opening, its threshold shrouded in darkness. Broken and splintered wood was scattered all around it, as if the barricade had been shattered apart from the inside.
“Check it out, the place is wide open,” Sadie spoke with an air of mystified awe. She shone the flashlight around the opening as she crept up to the doorway. “Let’s have a sneaky peek inside.”
I hesitated. The disturbing atmosphere which seemed to emanate from the cabin had me on edge. We’d already flirted with fate by allowing the will-o’-the-wisp to lead us this far, but we were officially tempting things by stepping foot inside that remote, forbidding cabin. Regardless of the legends Dad told us, or the odds that somebody may or may not be inside, everything about this felt wrong. Like some primal instinct was telling me to run. And I’d seen enough horror movies to know how these kinds of things turn out.
I’d also seen enough horror movies to know what happens to the innocent bystander who gets left alone in the dark by the others. Which was precisely what was about to happen to me if I didn’t follow them inside.
“You coming with us? We can leave you outside if you’re afraid we’ll wake the witches,” Daryl teased from the doorway.
I shook my head emphatically. “Right behind you,” I said, moving towards the cabin. Each step felt like my feet were weighed down by concrete, but I pushed on through my hesitancy. “Someone’s got to make sure you two don’t end up dead in a basement.”
A chill ran down my spine the moment I crossed the threshold. A lingering sense of uneasiness preyed on my mind.
Inside was in as much a state of disrepair as it looked from the outside. Our flashlights cast thick beams through the dust-filled atmosphere, catching motes drifting through the air. Dirt-filled cobwebs hung in dense clumps from the ceiling, dotted with the withered corpses of long-dead spiders. The furniture was rustic and wooden, most of it worn and warped with time and damp.
Chimes, made from strings of small animal bones, hung around the windows, the rodentine skulls of rats or mice dangling from the ends. Faded tapestries draped from the walls, hand-woven pieces depicting strange symbols and unsettling icons. In the disused fireplace, a large cast-iron cauldron sat collecting dust, marred with scorch marks across its bulbous underside. Was it possible that this place had indeed once been home to a coven of witches?
Were it not for the unbarred doorway and the inexplicably lit candle, there was nothing to suggest another soul had set foot in this condemned place in decades.
“Hello? Anybody home?” Sadie called out in a sing-song tone. Her voice fell dully upon the darkness. “Whoever you are, you left your candle burning. That’s a hell of a fire hazard in a wooden hovel, dude.”
“They left the door open, lit a candle for mood lighting, but couldn’t even be bothered to tidy the place up,” Daryl scoffed. “Y’know, give this place a clean, put down a nice rug, maybe get rid of those weird bone chimes, we could have ourselves a new vacation home.”
“You’ve got to be joking,” I said. I couldn’t imagine any amount of interior design making this place less disturbing. The whole atmosphere made me shudder. “This place doesn’t creep you out?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Daryl said nonchalantly, “but I’m kind of digging the spooky vibe.” He opened a door on the far side of the cabin, peeking his head around the corner. “Dad?” he whispered into the shadows.
I didn’t notice my brother heading through the doorway. I wish I had, but my focus was drawn towards something else. A heavy, leather-bound book, resting on a lopsided table. As I caught it in the beam of my flashlight, I could make out an engraving on the cover: a five-pointed star, with unusual symbols at each of its points.
My curiosity got the better of me.
I picked up the aged book, blew the dust from its cover, and turned the pages. The paper was browned and curled, coarse yet delicate to the touch. Each sheet was covered in barely-legible handwriting, as well as more of these obscure and arcane symbols.
My head spun as I read through the passages. They told of spells and summonings, of demons and spirits beyond the veil. There were incantations for invocation and banishing, symbols for protective wards and bindings… It was like something out of a fantasy story, not an abandoned old cabin near our childhood campsite.
My eyes landed on a familiar image. A set of symbols I’d seen before.
“Guys,” I said, gesturing with my flashlight, “come look at this.”
It was the same set of symbols which framed the cabin’s entrance. A protection enchantment, the description read, cast upon doorways to prevent malign spirits from crossing the threshold.
“No way!” Sadie exclaimed as she peered over my shoulder. “Maybe Dad was right about witches living here.”
“As if I wasn’t creeped out enough already,” I said, nudging her in the ribs. “Daryl, what do—”
It was then that I noticed our brother was missing. I cast my flashlight around the room, pivoting on the spot to see where he’d gone. “Daryl?” I called out. “If you think this is funny, it’s really not.”
Eerie, elongated shadows stretched out and away from the torchlight. They shifted and moved on the edge of my vision, and for a brief moment I thought it was Daryl playing some stupid prank. But as I shone my light directly at the formless things, they immediately dissipated. Nothing but shadow and night.
A frisson ran down my spine.
“Daryl?” Sadie called out too, and I thought I heard a hint of worry in her voice. Not that she would ever admit it. “Daryl, are you… Are you through here?”
Her flashlight had hit upon the door at the far end of the cabin. It hung ajar, giving us a brief glimpse of a darkened space beyond, and from somewhere in the depths we could hear the faint echo of voices. One of them sounded like Daryl, but there was another, deeper voice speaking with him.
Tentatively, we pulled the door open, creaking as it came, and stepped through. It didn’t lead into another room. Instead, it opened up onto a staircase which descended deep beneath the cabin. It must’ve stretched down to the bowels of the earth, as the light of our torches didn’t even reach the bottom.
“Age before beauty,” Sadie said, edging me towards the first step. She tried to mask it with humour, but I could tell she was afraid. I hardly blamed her. I’d been nervous enough about entering the cabin to begin with, and now here we were staring down the abyss beneath it.
I swallowed my fear. It clawed at my mind, tightened the breath in my chest. My heart pounded in my throat. The last thing I wanted to do was descend into the darkness, but I couldn’t leave Daryl with whatever he’d gotten himself into. Nor was I going to force my younger sister to go first into the shadowy unknown. I began to creep carefully down the staircase, with Sadie following close behind.
Perhaps it was the slow, cautious and dread-filled journey down, but the stairs seemed to descend endlessly. We continued heading deeper and deeper beneath the cabin, our flashlights still not reaching the floor below. Eventually even the door above us was beginning to fade from sight. Until, at long last, we reached the bottom.
The voices had stopped speaking now. An unearthly silence hung thick in the stagnant air of this dark, dank basement.
The floor was an assortment of ramshackle wooden slats, some cracked and broken away. Pieces of the wood had come loose, revealing patches of the damp earth beneath. Soil scattered about the place, carpeting the floor with dirt.
Our lights illuminated a pattern painted upon the ground. Faint and faded lines formed a circle, with the worn remnants of symbols around its edge. There were mounds of bones, placed as if aligned to the cardinal points of a compass. Some were small and rodentine like the chimes; others decidedly larger, and hauntingly humanoid. It didn’t take a mysterious spellbook or Dad’s stories to tell me this was the site of some dark ritual.
And there, standing in the middle of the circle, was our brother.
Daryl stood stock-still with his back to us. He didn’t even turn around when we cast our lights upon him. There was no sign of anyone else here in the basement besides him.
“Daryl?” I asked hesitantly, taking a step towards him. “Who were you talking to? I thought I heard two voices.”
“There’s no one else here,” he intoned. His face caught the light as he slowly turned towards me, and the sight shook me to my very core. His eyes, once bright blue, were now orbs of unnatural blackness. “There is only me, and this meagre vessel of flesh and bone.”
My mind swam as the world appeared to spin. I could barely see anything beyond my brother, the rest of the basement shrouded in shadow, yet still my vision twisted and blurred. Around us I could see other shapes, vague forms shifting in the darkness, like the shades of half-forgotten nightmares. I took an unsteady step back, waving my flashlight frantically as I tried to see what these things were, but they vanished the instant I looked at them.
Daryl’s head tilted to one side. He stared at us, unblinking, with his empty eyes.
“Long have I waited for this moment,” he snarled, taking a step forward on shaky, uncoordinated legs. “I have dreamt in shadow, formless and unending, bound to this place.”
“Yes, har-har, very spooky,” Sadie’s voice quavered. “Now drop the act, let’s get back to camp.”
“You think this funny, mortal?” Daryl spat. “Without a form I was condemned to fester in this place! I was forced to lure others of your kind here, that I may sustain myself on their essence. But this one…” It caressed Daryl’s face with his own limp, lifeless hand. “There is fresh pain in this one. A hollow grief and uncertainty. Such sweet sorrow. And in his desperation for ‘dear old dad’, I found my opening.”
Daryl’s lips stretched into an unnatural grin as he—it—took another lurching step towards us. It may have worn Daryl’s face, but there was no way this thing was our brother. I pushed Sadie back as we moved to keep our distance. I didn’t want to provoke it by breaking into a run for the stairs, but every fibre of my being was screaming for us to escape.
“Once I have consumed my fill, I shall finally have the strength to use this form and break free of that infernal spell. Your kind will learn to—”
The being’s words were cut short as Sadie grabbed a loose floorboard and swung it—with a disturbing amount of force—at Daryl’s head. The tip of the wood snapped off, showering splinters and dirt, but it hit its mark. The side of his face was cut and bloodied, and he staggered backwards, bewildered.
“Christ, Daryl, I’m sorry,” Sadie breathed, “if that’s even you anymore.” She reached out to him instinctively, and instantly regretted it. The thing which possessed Daryl roared—a sound which would tear the vocal cords of a normal person—as it lashed out. She batted it away once more with another solid thwack. “Oh god, I’m sorry!"
She hefted the remains of the plank in her hands, and gave me a firm shove towards the stairs. “Run,” she said. “You get us upstairs, I’ll keep swinging to hold the bastard back.”
I hesitated. Like hell was I leaving my little sister at the mercy of something which had possessed our brother! But as I went to protest, the being made another clumsy lunge towards us. We leapt back, trying to keep our distance from the monster which had once been our brother.
“Seriously, fucking move!” she bellowed.
So I did. I bolted for the staircase, my flashlight bobbing about as I tried to light the way back out of here. The aged steps felt like they could give way at any moment, but mercifully they held as we raced to the surface. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see Sadie following close behind me, flailing the broken plank as she tried to keep our brother at bay.
The top of the staircase was coming into sight. The door hung open, the faint illumination of the night sky somehow brighter than the darkness we were fleeing. Behind us, the entity was stumbling over itself in its haste. It seemed to be having difficulty coordinating human limbs properly, its shambolic and ungainly gait helping to put more distance between ourselves and it.
I barrelled through the door at the top of the stairs, rushing to pick up that old spellbook. Hastily I flicked through the pages, desperately searching for something—anything—that could help. Page after page went by, with no sign of any exorcism rituals. And then, mid-sentence, the passages came to an abrupt stop. Only the rusted brown of aged blood punctuating the final line: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here. We should not have—’
Standing in the doorway, Sadie readied herself, holding the fractured remains of the plank like a baseball bat. As the thing rounded the top of the stairs, she swung at its head again, landing another solid blow. And as it reeled from the hit, she leaned back and threw a kick squarely into Daryl’s stomach.
Our brother’s blacked-out eyes widened as he tumbled backwards, down into the impenetrable shadows below. The cracking of wood as his body smacked against the staircase, and the sickening snap of bones, echoed through the night. And from within the dark depths, there came a monstrous roar of agonised fury.
There was no telling how long we had before it found its way back up to us. We were left with little choice. Sadie began to barricade the staircase doorway with pieces of old, broken furniture, while I did what I had to do. With tears hot and heavy in my eyes, I extended my pocket-knife. My trembling hands started to carve symbols along the interior door’s frame, copying from the spellbook. A sequence of sigils designed to repel demonic entities. Perhaps it would force that thing from our brother’s body, but even if it didn’t it would at least keep it trapped within that place beneath the earth. It, and Daryl. Whatever was left of him.
We sat in solemn silence outside the cabin, watching and waiting until dawn. But nothing happened. No demon came tearing through our barriers, trapped behind spell and barricade. No cry for help from our brother either. We had kept whatever horror had possessed him at bay, but so too had we condemned our own brother to that hideous fate. I kept scouring the book, hoping to stumble upon some solution, a way to save him, but if there were any answers they were encrypted within these strange, indecipherable symbols.
With heavy hearts and troubled minds, we boarded up the front door to the shack. Sealed as it had been for many years before, so that no one else may meet the same fate as our lost brother.
Sadie and I were never the same after that fateful night. We still share nightmares, seeing Daryl—alive and broken—trapped in that accursed cabin. She blames herself for what she had to do, although she knows she saved us both. It doesn’t sit right with her. It doesn’t sit right with either of us.
I continue to study the pages of this old book, in search of a way to save him. I fear it may be too late, but I’ll never stop trying to make all this right. I have to.
We go back to that place from time to time, to check it’s still safe. Still secure. And to pay respects to our brother, with the hope that maybe this time we’ll find a way to free him.
Until one night, when we revisited that cabin in the woods, a candle burned in the window…